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Armenians build a new world against the odds in Lebanon

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 PostPosted: Fri Aug 06, 2004 1:13 pm    Post subject: Armenians build a new world against the odds in Lebanon Reply with quote Back to top


The Australian, Australia
Aug 5 2004

Armenians build a new world against the odds in Lebanon
By Nicolas Rothwell
August 05, 2004

AS you turn into tranquil Anjar village, deep in the border ranges of
eastern Lebanon, suddenly things aren't quite the same.

The faces look different, the alphabet is different, the language
spoken on the streets has changed. There are arch-shaped monoliths
marking the crossroads.

A steep-roofed, distinctively Caucasian church looms above the
orchards and the cypress groves.

Anjar, in fact, is one of the Middle East's more remarkable Armenian
communities, and its dwindling population of 4500 is determined not
just to hang on to its traditions, but to keep its history alive.

This month, as the culmination of its efforts, the Anjar festival,
dormant for more than a decade, will be staged once more in the
majestic Ummayad palace ruins lying on the edge of town.

"We felt the time had come once more to bring the whole world to
Anjar," says Nicol Hergelian, one of the key figures behind the

"It will be a mixed affair. We have Muslim performers and Christians,
we have Arabs and also Armenians, all the different elements of

But the people of Anjar can't help highlighting their own story,
which was once world famous.

Their village is an elaborate, well-planned community, built in the
shape of an eagle, "because the eagle is the strongest, most enduring

In 1939, the ancestors of today's Anjarians were living in an area of
northern Syria known as the Sanjak, close to biblical Antioch. Their
homes were seven villages in the mountains of Moses.

But France, which held control of the region, granted it to Turkey.
After a furious battle, which lasted more than a month, the Armenians
were forced into exile.

Their struggle became the subject of a best-selling novel, The Forty
Days of Musa Dagh, by the celebrated Austrian writer Franz Werfel.

The Armenians marched south, as far as Tripoli in Lebanon, and were
once more transplanted by the French to a tent city in the Bekaa

Here, gradually, they built a new world in the shadow of the Jabal
Esh Charqi mountains, developing an elaborate local irrigation
system, cultivating apple orchards, creating their own independent
schools and social institutions.

Today's Anjarians face new challenges. Much of the original
population emigrated during Lebanon's civil war in the 1980s, or
found refuge in their Armenian homeland when the Soviet empire
collapsed in 1991.

Across Lebanon, Armenian numbers fell from 350,000 to a mere 90,000.
Some areas of the country where large Armenian communities once
thrived still have a faintly forlorn air.

Here in Anjar, the local economy has yet to recover, despite the
profusion of engineers, doctors and technicians living in the town.

Nicol Hergelian, a former cheese production expert, is running a
store to put his many talented children through university, while his
plumber friend Musa Topalian, who speaks five languages fluently, is
unable to find a lot in the way of suitable employment.

A sleepy, cerebral mood mantles the little town, which also does duty
as a low-key Syrian military encampment.

Much energy is spent on celebrating the bleak anniversaries that dot
the Armenian calendar: February 18, for instance, which marks
Vartan's heroic battle against the Persians in the year 451. Or May
28, Armenia's first, abortive national independence day, or April 24,
which commemorates the deaths of untold numbers of Armenians in 1915.

But there are upbeat events as w
ell, now the Anjar Festival is back
on track. Stars of the Arab music world, like Naiim Al Asmar and
Jahida Wehbi, will perform, while some of the great names of the
Armenian diaspora are expected too.

"Of course this festival is a kind of symbol," says Hergelian. "And
not just an emblem of Anjar and Armenian strength. Yes, we are
strong, and we are determined to survive.

"We don't bow our heads to anyone. Otherwise there would be no

"But we want to bring together all of Lebanon. Our neighbours here in
this valley are Arab Christians and Muslims and we enjoy living with
them all. We stay living in Anjar because we choose to - because
Lebanon is a very beautiful and civilised country."
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